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Montecito is now a quarry with houses in it:

So far twenty dead have been removed. It will take much more time to remove what some estimate at twenty thousand dump truck loads of what geologists call “debris,” to locate and fix the civic infrastructure (roads, water, electric, gas) below.

The big questions:

  1. Did we know this was going to happen? (And if so, which among us were the “we” who knew?)
  2. Was there any way to prevent it?

Geologists had their expectations, expressed as degrees of likelihood and detailed on this map:

That was more than a month before huge rains revised to red the colors in the mountains above town. The LA Times also ran a story the week before last, warning about debris flows, which are like mud slides, but with lots of rocks.

The best report I’ve seen about what geologists knew, and expected, is After the Mudslides, What Does the Next Rain Hold for Montecito?, in the Independent.

What happened was easily predictable in geologic time, and comes down to “Yeah sure. Pretty much all the South Coast’s slopes are debris flows. These happen over and over, and won’t stop.” But the likelihood it will happen in human time is small.

One well-studied debris flow is the one that emptied a natural lake that’s now Skofield Park, and deposited a debris flow down Rattlesnake Canyon, and left its clearest evidence in Rocky Nook Park. What geologists at UCSB learned from that is detailed in a 2001  report titled UCSB Scientists Study Ancient Debris Flows. I’ve since learned that even some stand-alone land forms, such as Santa Barbara’s Riviera, are not a hunk of solid rock, but big landslide off the face of the Santa Ynez Mountains that has since been eroded out from behind by Mission Creek and other waterways, while also sliding westward on its own tectonic sled.

What happened last Tuesday morning was the convergence of geologic and human time.

When rains locals called “biblical” hit in the darkest hours, debris flows gooped down the mountainside canyons in the colored areas of that map, and down across Montecito to the sea, depositing lots of geology on top of what was already there.

Our home, one zip code west of Montecito, was fine. But we can’t count how many people we know who are affected directly. Some victims were friends of friends. It’s pretty damn awful.

We all process tragedies like this in the ways we know best, and mine is by reporting on stuff, hopefully in ways others are not, or at least not yet. So I’ll start with this map showing damaged and destroyed buildings along the creeks:

At this writing the map is 70% complete. I’ve clicked on all the red dots (which mark destroyed buildings, most of which are homes), and I’ve copied and pasted the addresses into the following outline, adding a few links.

Going downstream along Cold Spring Creek, Hot Springs Creek and Montecito Creek (which the others feed), gone are—
  1. 817 Ashley Road
  2. 817 Ashley Road (out building)
  3. 797 Ashley Road
  4. 780 Ashley Road. Amazing architectural treasure that last sold for $12.9 million in ’13.
  5. 747 Indian Lane
  6. 631 Parra Grande Lane. That’s the mansion where the final scene in Scarface was shot.
  7. 590 Meadowood Lane
  8. 830 Rockbridge Road
  9. 800 Rockbridge Road
  10. 790 Rockbridge Road
  11. 787 Riven Rock Road B
  12. 1261 East Valley Road
  13. 1240 East Valley Road A (mansion)
  14. 1240 East Valley Road B (out building)
  15. 1254 East Valley Drive
  16. 1255 East Valley Road
  17. 1247 East Valley Road A
  18. 1247 East Valley Road B (attached)
  19. 1231 East Valley Road A
  20. 1231 East Valley Road B (detached)
  21. 1231 East Valley Road C (detached)
  22. 1221 East Valley Road A
  23. 1221 East Valley Road B
  24. 369 Hot Springs Road
  25. 341 Hot Springs Road
  26. 355 Hot Springs Road
  27. 340 Hot Springs Road
  28. 319 Hot Springs Road
  29. 325 Olive Mill Road
  30. 285 Olive Mill Road
  31. 275 Olive Mill Road
  32. 325 Olive Mill Road
  33. 220 Olive Mill Road
  34. 200 Olive Mill Road
  35. 275 Olive Mill Road
  36. 180 Olive Mill Road
  37. 170 Olive Mill Road
  38. 144 Olive Mill Road
  39. 137 Olive Mill Road
  40. 139 Olive Mill Road
  41. 127 Olive Mill Road
  42. 196 Santa Elena Lane
  43. 192 Santa Elena Lane
  44. 179 Santa Isabel Lane
  45. 175 Santa Elena Lane
  46. 142 Santo Tomas Lane
  47. 82 Olive Mill Road
  48. 1308 Danielson Road
  49. 81 Depot Road
  50. 75 Depot Road
Along Oak Creek, some are damaged, but none destroyed.
Along San Ysidro Creek—
  1. 953 West Park Lane
  2. 941 West Park Lane
  3. 931 West park Lane
  4. 925 West park Lane
  5. 903 West park Lane
  6. 893 West park Lane
  7. 805 W Park Lane
  8. 881 West park Lane
  9. 881 West park Lane (separate building, same address)
  10. 900 San Ysidro Lane C
  11. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage B
  12. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage A
  13. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage D
  14. 805 West Park Lane B
  15. 799 East Mountain Drive
  16. 1801 East Mountain Lane
  17. 1807 East Mountain Drive
  18. 771 Via Manana Road
  19. 899 El Bosque Road
  20. 771 Via Manana Road
  21. 898 El Bosque Road
  22. 800 El Bosque Road A (Casa de Maria)
  23. 800 El Bosque Road B (Casa de Maria)
  24. 800 El Bosque Road C (Casa de Maria)
  25. 680 Randall Road
  26. 670 Randall Road
  27. 660 Randall Road
  28. 650 Randall Road
  29. 640 Randall Road
  30. 630 Randall Road
  31. 619 Randall Road
  32. 1685 East Valley Road A
  33. 1685 East Valley Road B
  34. 1685 East Valley Road C
  35. 1696 East Valley Road
  36. 1760 Valley Road A
  37. 1725 Valley Road A
  38. 1705 Glenn Oaks Drive A
  39. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive B
  40. 1710 Glen Oaks Drive A
  41. 1790 Glen Oaks Drive A
  42. 1701 Glen Oaks Drive A
  43. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive A
  44. 1705 East Valley Road A
  45. 1705 East Valley Road B
  46. 1705 East Valley Road C
  47. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive N/A
  48. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive (one on top of the other)
  49. 1774 Glen Oaks Drive
  50. 1707 East Valley Road A
  51. 1685 East Valley Road C
  52. 1709 East Valley Road
  53. 1709 East Valley Road B
  54. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive A
  55. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive B
  56. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive A
  57. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive B
  58. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive C
  59. 1781 Glen Oaks Drive A
  60. 1711 East Valley Road (This and what follow are adjacent to Oprah)
  61. 1715 East Valley Road A
  62. 1715 East Valley Road B
  63. 1719 East Valley Road
  64. 1721 East Valley Road A
  65. 1721 East Valley Road B
  66. 1721 East Valley Road C
  67. 1694 San Leandro Lane A
  68. 1694 San Leandro Lane D
  69. 1690 San Leandro Lane C
  70. 1690 San Leandro Lane A
  71. 1694 San Leandro Lane B
  72. 1696 San Leandro Lane
  73. 1710 San Leandro Lane A
  74. 1710 San Leandro Lane B
  75. 190 Tiburon Bay Lane
  76. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane A
  77. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane B
  78. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane C
  79. 197 Tiburon Bay Lane A
Along Buena Vista Creek—
  1. 923 Buena Vista Avenue
  2. 1984 Tollis Avenue A
  3. 1984 Tollis Avenue B
  4. 1984 Tollis Avenue C
  5. 2075 Alisos Drive
  6. 627 Oak Grove Lane
Along Romero Creek—
  1. 1050 Romero Canyon Road
  2. 860 Romero Canyon Road
  3. 768 Winding Creek Lane
  4. 745 Winding Creek Lane
  5. 744 Winding Creek Lane
  6. 2281 Featherhill Avenue B

Along Arroyo Paredon, between Summerland and Carpinteria, not far east of the list above, one building is marked as destroyed on Craven Lane, and ten flanking Highway 101 by the ocean are marked as damaged, including four on Padero Lane.

When I add those up, I get 142 among the destroyed alone.

Now let’s look and look at this again from the geological perspective, one blink after geological and human time met.

What we see is a town revised by nature in full disregard for what was there before—and in full obedience to the pattern of alluvial deposition on the flanks of all fresh mountains that erode down almost as fast as they go up.

This same pattern accounts for California.

To see what I mean, hover your mind above Atlanta and look north at the southern Appalachians. Then dial history back five million years. What you see won’t look much different. Do the same above Los Angeles or San Francisco and nothing will be the same, or even close.

Five million years is about 1/1000th of Earth’s history. If that history were compressed to a day, California showed up in less than the last minute. In that time California has formed and re-formed constantly, and is among the most provisional territories in the world. All of it is coming up, sliding down, spreading out and rearranging itself constantly, and will continue doing so through all the future that’s worth bothering to foresee. Debris flows are among its most casual methods.

But we do fight nature, and that’s what the Montecito quarry operation is about.

Other places in California are more experienced with debris flows, because they happen almost constantly there. The biggest of those by far is Los Angeles, which has placed catch basins at the mouths of canyons coming out of the San Gabriel Mountains. Some of these are massive. All resemble empty reservoirs. Some are actually quarries for rocks and gravel that emerge constantly from those mountains. None are pretty. Do we need some for Montecito? I don’t know.

But I do know it helps a lot to read John McPhee’s classic book The Control of Nature. Fortunately, you can start now by reading the first of a pair of essays that became the relevant chapter in that book. It’s free on the Web and called Los Angeles Against the Mountains I. Here’s an excerpt:

Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins.

The Genofiles were a family that barely survived a debris flow on a slope of Verdugo Mountain, overlooking Los Angeles from Glendale. Here’s another story, about another site not far away:

The snout of the debris flow was twenty feet high, tapering behind. Debris flows sometimes ooze along, and sometimes move as fast as the fastest river rapids. The huge dark snout was moving nearly five hundred feet a minute and the rest of the flow behind was coming twice as fast, making roll waves as it piled forward against itself—this great slug, as geologists would describe it, this discrete slug, this heaving violence of wet cement. Already included in the debris were propane tanks, outbuildings, picnic tables, canyon live oaks, alders, sycamores, cottonwoods, a Lincoln Continental, an Oldsmobile, and countless boulders five feet thick. All this was spread wide a couple of hundred feet, and as the debris flow went through Hidden Springs it tore out more trees, picked up house trailers and more cars and more boulders, and knocked Gabe Hinterberg’s lodge completely off its foundation. Mary and Cal Drake were standing in their living room when a wall came off. “We got outside somehow,” he said later. “I just got away. She was trying to follow me. Evidently, her feet slipped out from under her. She slid right down into the main channel.” The family next door were picked up and pushed against their own ceiling. Two were carried away. Whole houses were torn loose with people inside them. A house was ripped in half. A bridge was obliterated. A large part of town was carried a mile downstream and buried in the reservoir behind Big Tujunga Dam. Thirteen people were part of the debris. Most of the bodies were never found.

This is close to exactly what happened to Montecito in the wee hours last Tuesday morning.

As of now the 8000-plus residents of Montecito are evacuated and forbidden to return for at least another two weeks. Maybe longer

Highway 101—one of just two major freeways between Southern and Northern California, is closed indefinitely, because it is now itself a stream bed, and re-landscaping the area around it, to get water going where it should, will take some time. So will fixing the road, and perhaps bridges as well.

Meanwhile getting in and out of Santa Barbara from east of Montecito by car requires a detour akin to driving from Manhattan to Queens by way of Vermont. And there have already been accidents, I’ve heard, on highway 166, which is the main detour road. We’ll be taking that detour or one like it on Thursday when we head home via Los Angeles after we fly there from New York, where I’m packing up now.

Expect this post to grow and change.

Bonus links:


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Here’s the latest satellite fire detection data, restricted to just the last twelve hours of the Thomas Fire, mapped on Google Earth Pro:That’s labeled 1830 Mountain Standard Time (MST), or 5:30pm Pacific, about half an hour ago as I write this.

And here are the evacuation areas:

Our home is in the orange Voluntary Evacuation area. So we made a round trip from LA to prepare the house as best we could, gather some stuff and go. Here’s a photo album of the trip, and one of the last sights we saw on our way out of town:

This, I believe, was a fire break created on the up-slope side of Toro Canyon. Whether purely preventive or not, it was very impressive.

And here is a view of the whole burn area, which stretches more than forty miles from west to east (or from Montecito to Fillmore):

Here you can see how there is no fresh fire activity near Lake Casitas and Carpinteria, which is cool (at least relatively). You can also see how Ojai and Carpinteria were saved, how Santa Barbara is threatened, and how there are at least five separate fires around the perimeter. Three of those are in the back country, and I suspect the idea is to let those burn until they hit natural fire breaks or the wind shifts and the fires get blown back on their own burned areas and fizzle out there.

The main area of concern is at the west end of the fire, above Santa Barbara, in what they call the front country: the slope on the ocean’s side of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which run as a long and steep spine, rising close to 4000 feet high in the area we care about here. (It’s higher farther west.)

This afternoon I caught a community meeting on KEYT, Santa Barbara’s TV station, which has been very aggressive and responsible in reporting on the fire. I can’t find a recording of that meeting now on the station’s website, but I am watching the station’s live 6pm news broadcast now, devoted to a news conference at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. (Even though I’m currently at a house near Los Angeles, I can watch our TV set top box remotely through a system called Dish Anywhere. Hats off to Dish Network for providing that ability. In addition to being cool, it’s exceptionally handy for evacuated residents whose homes still have electricity and a good Internet connection. I thank Southern California Edison and Cox for those.)

On KEYT, Mark Brown of @Cal_Fire just spoke about Plans A, B and C, one or more of which will be chosen based on how the weather moves. Plan C is the scariest (and he called it that), because it involves setting fire lines close to homes, intentionally scorching several thousand acres to create an already-burned break, to stop the fire. “The vegetation will be removed before the fire has a chance to take it out, the way it wants to take it out,” he says.

Okay, that briefing just ended. I’ll leave it there.

So everybody reading this knows, we are fine, and don’t need to be at the house while this is going on. We also have great faith that 8000 fire fighting personnel and all their support systems will do the job and save our South Coast communities. What they’ve done so far has been nothing short of amazing, given the enormous geographical extent of this fire, the exceptionally rugged nature of the terrain, the record dryness of the vegetation, and other disadvantages. A huge hat tip to them.